There’s something about the way Barathi reads that makes the writers she reads feel deeply and fiercely read. I envy her capacity to slide under the skin of your words, find the heart within them and give it more life than you ever could. This is how she writes as well.
To think that even my most ordinary thoughts and sentences find a home in her body/mind is to know that when she sends them back to me, I am going to catch them and when I do, I am going to fall hard. Sample this sentence: “when a space is sought to create art, such a space too, in turn, bears the complexities embedded in the artist’s method and being. Simply put, artists often have to create the space they want to be in because such a place did not exist until then” — this is all her. And that’s why, to get to know her as a writer, a reader, a person is a gift.
Sometimes Dalit women writing makes men’s dicks fall. I’ve seen this happen. I can give you proof but I don’t want to put dicks on my blog, there are enough of them in the world. I used to think that their dicks are falling because they want us to return our SC certificates but they are falling because we are writing and we won’t stop writing no matter how much they cry.
To have on the one hand, this fear of women writing, and on the other, women who celebrate women’s writing makes me happy.
I wish I spend all of this year reading more of Barathi and people like Barathi who make it possible to imagine a world where we are read in the way we want to write.
The University of Oxford held a two-day conference on caste census on 5th and 6th February. Day one had a very special panel called ‘Whose culture is it? Decoding caste within popular culture’ which had some very very special people – Pa Ranjith, Nrithya Pillai, Meena Kotwal, and Sylvia Karpagam. You can watch the recording here. This is me, weeks later, looking back at what was the most rewarding way to begin this year.
If you are moderating a panel where the panelists each speak a different language, then you have failed even before you have begun. But 30 minutes before the panel, I was watching Sarpatta – again – and drawing from the film everything that was to carry me through the night.
When Pa Ranjith switched his camera on, I was terrified. It meant that it was actually happening. But then he smiled and I wasn’t so scared anymore. I was looking at his teeth and how they came together to greet me. Watching him smile calmed me and the entire evening after that went past me like I was missing a train that I wasn’t supposed to get on anyway.
Because it was Pa Ranjith, and because ever since I watched Sarpatta, I’ve been feeling closer to the work I do, and because I celebrated Kabilan’s entry into the ring and eventual victory more personally and intimately than I’ve celebrated my own joys, and also partly because and despite the fact that I don’t understand Tamizh very well, I was catching every word he uttered like they were falling only for me, like some rains sometimes do.
Here are some things he said that I want to carry with me this year, and the next, and the next.
Dalit artists cannot afford to be mediocre:
Simply because we have no choice except to work hard. It is rare that hard work and a commitment to minding your own business produces mediocrity. As much as anyone likes to believe that we got here on someone’s favour or quota or luck – we are here because we worked hard and now must continue to work hard. Notice how even the worst and laziest of Savarna mediocrity remains both unpunished and left alone? It’s a luxury not all have so we find relief in the thought that if our work is itching some people’s bums, they should buy itch guard.
So what do you do when the cow dung won’t stop coming?
It is hard to forget the shine in Pa Ranjith’s teeth and the way his laugh took over his face when he said IGNORE and waved his hand. It dissolved every worry and fear I had gathered so far. Here was a man whose smile and words were undoing the curse of every other fragile male ego I’ve had to deal with in the last two years. He urged me to think about the time when Ambedkar was surrounded by people with sticks threatening to beat him at the Parsi inn and what it must have been like. What did Ambedkar do? He walked away and went about his work. If I wasn’t so much in love and salivating all over zoom, I might have cried. I think I did.
Keep doing what you are doing
I am beginning the year with his words and the rain of his laugh. I am going put them both into my everyday and my work, life, love, food, and sleep.
My WhatsApp had been going berserk and my berserker students were sending me love shaped pictures of Pa Ranjith and me. Some said to close my mouth because a mosquito could go in, some saw mosquitoes going in and coming out also it seems.
When I woke up the next morning, I was still drooling smiling.
I saw this on twitter today and wolf-whistled. Let’s not even begin to consider the audacity of telling someone ‘hey, your joy is triggering for me’ but to say ‘I’m white but I still feel…’ and in the same breath to also add ‘now that you are no longer an unhappy black woman, I don’t relate to you anymore.’ – how do you even address entitlement like this?
Bomb Stephanie Yeboah said this like the queen she is: “There does need to be an unpacking of why black joy seems to make some white women uncomfortable and the issue of entitlement. I don’t expect everyone to be happy for me, absolutely not! But being made to feel almost guilty for being happy is a weird flex.”
YES YES and YES!
If half our energies go away in addressing these entitlements, when do we do what we truly want to do? And please, no, this entitled behaviour isn’t our problem, it shouldn’t have to be but when someone goes out of their way to disrupt your joy, your work when you weren’t at all interested in their lives to begin with, understand that they do it out of entitlement yes, but also because your work makes them uncomfortable so we gots to keep kickin asses, sistahs.
This is a cartoon of Dr. Ambedkar that I return to very frequently these days. In it, Dr. Ambedkar is making way for sweepers (I assume this is Eeran’s way of depicting Dalit people) to enter the parliament; and is holding a rolled up paper that says Constitution. We know he is Dr. Ambedkar because of these things, yes but also because we know those glasses, that endearing rotundness of the belly that in other more humane depictions – holds capacity for big, shattering laughter. What’s supposed to shock us is that he is wearing a janeu, carrying gomutra (?), and blessing a line of Brahmin men at his feet.
He is referred to as the modern manu in one place and ‘our new brahmin’ in another.
Context – this illustration was published in Filmindia in 1950, a little after the Hindu Code Bill and twenty three years after the Mahad Satyagraha where Manusmriti was first publicly burnt. The depiction of Dr. Ambedkar as a brahmin here is to issue a threat. To brahmins, yes but they are threatened by everything so let’s not go there.
The threat here is issued also to the other ‘real’ Dalits. The ones real enough to be naked, starving, and dead. Because obviously, if you are literate, dress in suits, speak english, and have expensive tastes, bro are you even Dalit? This is the picture that began it all. Some call it the Savarna gaze, I call it more impetus to keep working.
While reading Babasaheb for the first time can open doors, give one the freedom, and the permission to reimagine oneself differently, it also makes one aware of the other door that is closed. One that only he can open. It’s the door I’m most curious about because the urge to know him more intimately can only be dissolved there. To know what worries he took home from work and back to work, how he worked, where he sat, what he ate, and how he dealt with distasteful reactions to his work. I tell myself that it isn’t necessary to know him like that. That his work is the way to know him and that it’s enough and it’s all there is to know and learn from really. But on some days, when the noise from outside pours in and I can’t hear myself or bring myself to read his words, I feel an itch to feel with my finger, the exact line of crease on his forehead, that line of worry and what he did to smoothen it out.
He worked his way out, yes. But in that moment of absolute disgust when he found himself amidst attacks like the one above, whether savarna or otherwise – how did he overcome the paralysis of finding oneself in a state of distrust, inaction, and aggression?
The chilling fact about the Ambedkar cartoons is that they are all ridiculous depictions of him while he is at work. That’s where it hits savarna ego the most – that while you are at work, you take space, that your body is full of work and work full of your body and when they walk in pinching their noses, the stench of your work nauseates them.
Just his presence in the parliament was enough to threaten the cabbages who were barely interested in what actually happened in the parliament. Most of the cartoons are wordless depictions of Ambedkar. Quite obviously so. Ambedkar’s language is so precise that no savarna worth his salt can imitate it. So they put in all their bitterness into making his belly bellier but didn’t know how to make him look dimwitted so they gave him little to no speech.
It’s perhaps in these cartoons that we learn most about Ambedkar’s work ethic simply because it’s here in these cartoons that we see the acidic hatred towards him and his work. What surrounds these cartoons is Ambedkar’s silence and the resolve to not be distracted by cow dung when there is so much work to be done. Another version of Savitiri Mai’s extra saree if you will.
The lesson to learn from this is if you are a Dalit who reads and writes in English, who may not be as willing to share her pornography of caste violence with the world, who chases joy deliberately, persistently, madly – then there is a line of people waiting to take away your SC certificate. It’s a funny, funny world. If you want to survive, you have to prove to one set of savarna cabbages that your merit is hard earned and real. And to the other set of cabbages that despite your merit- you are still suffering. Any evidence of joy, confidence, stability means you are brahmin.
Either way, you are more convincing as a Dalit if you are dead. Don’t be alive, that’s all they are asking. And by chance, if you are alive: don’t look happy, don’t read, don’t write, and definitely not in English. Then, when they are satisfied that your suffering is authentic, then they will give you a real Dalit certificate.
I dreamt of Babasaheb last night. He was wearing a suit, smoking a very expensive cigar, drinking single malt whiskey from a polished glass. His glasses were there, so was his belly. We were in a room full of books. We talked about work, food, love, and old letters. He told me to tell you ‘Nimduke certificate namduke beda’ (I don’t need your certificate)
To know more about this cartoon and others like it, please read No Laughing Matter : The Ambedkar Cartoons, 1932–1956 by Unnamati Syama Sundar.
I wrote the first essay in April, right about the time when second wave hit Bangalore. The first draft came apart like the jockey underwear I got 7- years ago. Only I knew about the holes but my editors are so smart that they also saw it and said ey this is nice but show that other one. So I wrote the second one, much tighter but also with holes that were easily darnable. I enjoyed writing this very much.
It feels like everything I need to say is inside me and I just have to sit long enough to perform some inner digging to get them all out. Writing has become very bodily these days. And I am learning to pay attention to how literal it is, how much of the body is in it. Grateful for this.
The essay is illustrated by the supremely talented Priyanka Paul whose amazing hand I want to kiss and do long dances with. Here is her glorious work:
Ever since I first read Joan Didion’s essay on self-respect a couple of years ago, I have taken it to every class I teach. My wish, that it gives young girls whatever sense of self I didn’t have when I was growing up is only slightly overshadowed by something selfish. I take it to class every year because I need to read it every year.
My self-respect tank runs on reserve through the year & for that one week when we do the essay in class, I feel like I have my self-respect firm in my palm. I try to understand how and why a white woman sitting so far away can know and have anything useful to say to a not- white teacher. But I’ve given up trying to reason with it. Those better equipped to deal with the ‘problematics’ of the situation may deal with it. I am more interested in taking the gift and running away with it.
A very Basavanagudi thing happened in Basavanagudi last week. We recently moved into a rented house and our neighbors already hate us. One doesn’t like that we park our carin front of our gate because he wants to park his car there. His caste, kula, gotra I don’t want to get into, we live in Basavanagudi; you figure.
One afternoon, my father was rushing to the bank and requested him to move his vehicle because it was blocking ours. The neighbor shrugged and didn’t come out of his house. My father went walking.
After that, my father made it a point to park our car right at the gate before the neighbor could. Even though he shouldn’t have to, let’s proceed.
The neighbor called the traffic police & complained bitterly to the confused young officer who responded. If the officer was entertained, he couldn’t hide it well: ‘So you have a problem if they park their car in front of their gate?’ Still, the neighbor persisted. My father lost it and ran screaming at the neighbor. The anger in my father’s voice does the same thing to me today that it has always done: irritate me, get me to think about how unnecessary it is, and bring me to automatic tears. In the past, I’ve seen my father scream so loudly, the red in his eyes don’t leave until the next morning, his face is concretely unmoving, and his temples throb as if struggling to come out. But when he was shouting at the neighbor, I realized it was the only thing he could’ve done. I understood the source of all his anger.
By then, the neighbor had gathered supporters on the strength of his and their births. Some stood on balconies, threads visible, saying to my father: ‘Just because you have a big car doesn’t mean…’ And that’s when I saw it – the source of their anger. The problem may not have been the car after all, it was the size of the car, which was perhaps as big as their bruised pride.
This morning, returning from a walk I saw a couple of policemen pacifying someone very much like the neighbor. He kept pointing at a few discarded flowers on the footpath. An hour ago when I’d walked the same way, I’d seen flower vendors sitting on the footpath under the shade of a large tree. The flower vendors were nowhere to be seen now. A man came running to them and said, “Saar, look at all this dirt, that too in front of a Brahmin house.”
What I’ve learnt from this tragicomical angst towards outsiders/’polluters’ in Basavanagudi is that the centre is not holding.
I am thinking of Gogu Shyamala’s ‘But Why Shouldn’t the Baindla Woman Ask for Her Land?’, where Saayamma bangs her fists, makes a fuss, and pushes the village heads with an iron grit and won’t leave until she takes back what belongs to her. I am thinking how much indignity there is in asking for things that you shouldn’t have to ask for (because they are yours to begin with).
I am thinking how those who make you ask for these things not only get to keep their dignity but yours as well. I am thinking of how the consequence of not making a fuss is different for different people. I am thinking of how every other passerby who heard my father roaring on the street would’ve called him an uncouth wild man. I am thinking of a Bahujan writer on a zoom panel I once attended. She was accused of not having got the question right and wouldn’t let go until both the moderator and the other speaker had apologized. These people who took back what was theirs, took it despite the consequences – they were not wild; they weren’t even angry; they were just holding on to their self-respect.
I am led back to the quietness of Didion’s words and wonder whether it is enough to sneak my self-respect out from wherever it is hiding, and- whether it’ll do. It will do. Didion says, “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect” — which to me means that some of our routes to self-respect aren’t going to be dignified and are certainly not going to be quiet. The route is what often gets us called mad and difficult. But it’s what will eventually free us from the Savarna expectation that we will keep eating kadlepuri while they hack at our self-respect.